Otis Thornton, recognized leader in Fort Worth’s fight against homelessness, dies

Mark Wayne Thornton – known widely in Fort Worth and North Texas by his college nickname “Otis” – died July 31. He was 53.

He had moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, after his marriage to Amylyn Crawford. Mr. Thornton was named executive director the Sullivan County Family Justice Center Blountville, Tennessee, in July 2020.

A live stream service was planned for Friday Aug. 6 in Kingsport Tennessee, with time to be announced.

Mr. Thornton was diagnosed with glioblastoma in January and underwent treatment including two surgeries before his death.

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He was the City of Fort Worth’s first director of the Directions Home program launched by former Mayor Mike Moncrief and later served as executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition (TCHC), the agency that serves as the umbrella organization for the federal funding in the fight against homelessness.

“Otis brought the ideas and the science of Housing First to our community. A short and long-term strategy predicated on getting homeless men and women off the streets and into housing as rapidly as possible,” said Bruce Frankel, the executive director of DRS, which provides services to the homeless.

Frankel praised Mr. Thornton’s role to Fort Worth’s understanding of and progressive shift in addressing homelessness over the past 15 years.

At the time the city’s Directions Home program was launched,  Fort Worth was the largest city in the United States without a 10-year plan to address homelessness, Moncrief said.

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“And Otis, along with a task force that was appointed by the council and myself, addressed this critical need and worked with Rev. Brooks Harrington to develop Directions Home, which was our plan on how to address homelessness.”

“Otis Thornton listened for the leading of the Spirit throughout his life, which repeatedly lead him to protect the most vulnerable of persons, whether they be poor, homeless, or abused. Some of us were fortunate enough to hear the same voice for part of that journey,” said Rev. Dan Freemyer, a former minister at Broadway Baptist Church and a long-time homeless advocate alongside Thornton, who is now senior pastor of Providence Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

“Otis was a close personal friend,” Frankel said. “I’m sure many people feel that way. One of his singular gifts was in drawing people together. With his unbound energy and passion, it was hard not to feel as if you were on a very special trip with him.”

Otis Thornton, former Homelessness Program Director for City of Fort Worth. FWBP Archives

Mr. Thornton was bright, curious, articulate and brave, he said.

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“Boyish charm, killer intellect and wit. I’ll never forget the first time I met him. Otis Thornton, Director of Homeless Services for the great City of Fort Worth. I wore a suit, tie and sensible business shoes to that first meeting. He wore jeans, sandals and a Hawaiian shirt and this incredible grin,” Frankel said.

There are repeated stories like that from everyone who knew him. But he was also considered by others as confrontational in his advocacy.

“He wasn’t afraid to express himself. And those of us who knew him understood that, but to be in the field that he was in, it wasn’t one for a shrinking violet. It just wasn’t,” Moncrief said.

“Otis was courageous and passionate about helping the unhoused in Fort Worth. His leadership through bringing Directions Home to fruition and heading TCHC took us on paths we might never have gone otherwise. The homeless have opportunities they’d have never had if it wasn’t for Otis. His passion was built on his faith in Christ. There will be stars on his crown in heaven,” said Rev. Fritz Ritsch, senior pastor at St. Stephens Presbyterian Church and a former chair of the TCHC board.

“When Otis came on board, he brought with him a spirit that had been absent. There was an attitude of positivity and accompanying that attitude was an infectious laugh. His well-known, mischievous personality could easily diffuse even the most difficult conversations about homelessness,” Moncrief said.

Jill “J.R.” Labbe, Senior Vice President, Community Affairs & Development at JPS Health Network, was a Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial writer assigned to become a specialist in homelessness as Directions Home was forming and accompanied the mayor and others on a fact-finding mission.

“When I met Otis Thornton in 2006, he was the key to putting names and stories to people experiencing homelessness in Fort Worth. The Star-Telegram’s Jeff Guinn helped our community recognize we had a problem, Otis helped us find solutions and opportunities to positively change people’s lives.

“He was a fierce advocate for ‘housing first’ long before it became best practice. A preacher’s heart and a sailor’s vocabulary. I will miss him so,” Labbe said.

“Otis was brilliant at illuminating homelessness for those who were not connected with it at all. He was an amazing fount of information, and Leadership Fort Worth turned to him regularly to help our classes understand the dimensions and impact of the homeless community,” said Harriet B. Harral, former executive director of Leadership Fort Worth.

“He was able to directly challenge privilege and cluelessness, but he always did it in a spirit that did not demean but instead inspired our class members to want to learn more,” she said.

Jason Hall, Senior Deputy Director, Fannie Mae, and a long-time friend first met Mr. Thornton when he was appointed by Moncrief to the task force to develop a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Fort Worth.

“Otis was responsible for staffing that committee and focusing our efforts. I was immediately struck by his passion for the issue, his knowledge on the topic and his ability to communicate.  Otis spoke with equal ease to elected officials and our homeless citizens. Many people use the term ‘renaissance man’ too casually, but Otis truly was. He left a mark not just on people but on a community,” said Hall who would later serve as chair of the board of directors for the Continuum of Care.

“Some people collect stamps or books, Otis collected people (in a good way). He brought people together. I have friends today that I wouldn’t otherwise have without him. He pushed me intellectually to see more than was in front of my face, he challenged me to ask, ‘is that the best that you can do?’ Never judgmental, always supporting,” Hall said. “And willing to speak truth to power.

“I will say this about my friend, I will never have another one like him and that is perhaps what I mourn the most. But I celebrate the fact that most people never have a friend like him, and I am blessed to have been the few that have,” Hall said.

Amylyn Crawford and Mr. Thornton had known each other for 30 years when they reconnected at a half-marathon in Kentucky April Fools of 2016, she said in one of her CaringBridge posts.

“I felt like he was a rock star on the world changing stage and I was just an old friend with a suburban house, a couple of kids and a minivan,” she said.

“As you can imagine, he did not care about the minivan. He became a Disney World Annual Passholder and moved to suburbia in a place he used to not so lovingly refer to as ‘Stinkport.

“He said I was enough. All of it enough. He chose me, the girls and to give up life in Texas for us. Love was most important, and sometimes we have to risk everything for the joy of what is to come,” she said.

Mr. Thornton had what friends describe variously as a wicked or quirky sense of humor.

He posted this on Jan. 9 shortly after his glioblastoma diagnosis.

“My physician-wife observed some subtle but troubling symptoms I was exhibiting (unfinished cups of coffee, half consumed glasses of beer, losing track of time, etc.) that prompted her to schedule me for a CT scan.

“Good news: my skull was not as empty as some may have supposed. Bad news: my skull has some extra stuff in there too that, after an MRI last evening appears to be an (chicken) egg-sized tumor in my right frontal lobe.

“Brain cancer – so very 2020, to leave a going away present, right?  So, yeah, Viking-helmet dude in the Senate chamber may not be my indelible memory of this week after all. My new motto for 2021 is: let’s put the blast in glioblastoma! So, please be prepared to have some fun.  You can’t spell craniotomy without OT. I am more pugnacious than tenacious so you will think, after all,” he said.

Frankel admitted he was having trouble gathering thoughts.

“My thoughts and prayers are with his dear wife and two daughters, who changed Otis’s life as he morphed into a husband and father. And of course, to his parents and sister. Thank you for bringing this amazing man into the world, and raising a truly wonderful human being,” Frankel said.

“He made us all believe that one day, we really could make homelessness rare, short-term, and non-reoccurring,” he said.

He is survived by his wife, Amylyn Crawford; stepdaughters LillyBeth and Elly Rose Crawford; parents, Jack and Freda Thornton, Arlington; a sister, Rebecca Petty (Steve), one niece, Caroline Petty and one nephew, Drew Petty, Southlake.

Paul K. Harral was a long-serving member of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition board of director.